We Can’t Call It ‘Brexit’ Anymore

Normally, the discussion about history and presentism focuses on the past. How much can we impose our moral consensus, such as it is, on the 20th century? The 19th? The 18th?

Far less often, we look to the future to wonder how history will view our era. Even then, we’re more likely to assume the future will look a lot like the present, outside of a particular change we champion or dread. But changes we don’t see coming can completely rewrite our assumptions of events.

One such change came in Britain about six weeks ago, and discussion of “Brexit” should never be the same. Indeed, I would argue that even calling Britain’s decision to leave the European Union as “Brexit” is now a mistake.

Ever since the United Kingdom surprised itself and everyone else (well, at least me) by voting to leave the EU, the vote has become an incorrect inflection point for an incorrect narrative. Britain would be “going it alone” outside the EU, bereft of any benefits (or costs) that come with a trading bloc.

Seven years later, enough time has supposedly passed for pundits – especially those who thought leaving was a bad idea – to render judgment, such as the normally more circumspect David Frum in The Atlantic.

Huw Pill, the Bank of England’s chief economist, lamented in a recent podcast interview, “What we’re facing now is that reluctance to accept that, yes, we’re all worse off.”

These costs don’t necessarily make Brexit a “mistake.” Brexit was a trade: less prosperity for more sovereignty. Countries reasonably make such trades all the time.

That would be an expected analysis and quite reasonable … if the author doesn’t notice (as Frum clearly didn’t) Britain’s recent joining of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Politico). The decision to join the TPP (or CPTPP, as it’s now known) effectively blows up the entire “going it alone” narrative. Instead, Britain has exchanged one trade bloc (the highly restrictive EU) for another (the more trade-friendly and less sovereignty infringing CPTPP).

This means history will look at the matter differently than we do. For one, the period between EU and CPTPP membership for Britain will be capped at a mere three and a half years (Britain formally left in January 2020). A lot has happened during that time (and it still has a couple months left), but by 2030, by 2050, or by 2100, it will be the small hiccup in the larger of Britain’s EU and CPTPP eras.

One can see that in reviewing Frum’s piece as an example. Frum himself notes the current state of the British economy as deeply problematic (and rightly so). However, while he wonders what Britain’s future government could do to address them, future generations of historians will examine how TPP membership impacts them before looking at any particular government’s policy.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU is now permanently linked to its decision to join the TPP. The question is no longer, “Is Britain better off outside the EU?” It is rather, “Will Britain be better off in the TPP than in the EU.” That question will take years, if not decades, to answer.

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